baggage and luggage

results of a Google search for "luggage"

I'm reading Ingrid Paulsen's The emergence of American English as a discursive variety (it's open-access, so you can read it in PDF. But note: it is definitely an academic book). The book is essentially about when American English became "American English". If you subscribe to my newsletter (plug, plug), you'll probably read more about the book at some point in future. Today, I'm just mentioning it because it's inspired me to think more about baggage and luggage. Paulsen searched for this pair of words (among other things!) in 19th-century newspapers in order to find cases of people writing about American versus British English. I wondered if people still perceive a transatlantic difference here. 

These words got a boost in the 1800s thanks to the invention of rail travel and the need for a place to put one's stuff on them. Hence the invention, and the naming, of the (AmE) baggage car or (BrE) luggage van, which is one of the contexts Paulsen discusses. It's also been one of my Twitter Differences of the Day:

I can't remember the last time I checked my bags on a train journey, so I haven't run into people calling anything a baggage car or luggage van lately. I have to believe that they were more common in the US (where one could go greater distances by rail/train), since baggage car shows up whole a lot more in American books than either term shows up in British books:

click to embiggen

But what about the words baggage and luggage themselves? How did they get to be a "difference" and are they still a "difference"? 

Let's start with the history. This appears to be one of those differences that came about because English had two words that drifted in different ways in the two places—with more drifting in the UK. The Oxford English Dictionary hasn't fully updated its entries for these words since the dictionary was first published, but we can assume that they got the past fairly correct. Here are the first senses the OED gives for each word:

baggage The collection of property in packages that one takes along with him on a journey; portable property; luggage. (Now rarely used in Great Britain for ordinary ‘luggage’ carried in the hand or taken with one by public conveyance; but the regular term in U.S.)  [1885]

luggage In early use: What has to be lugged about; inconveniently heavy baggage (obsolete). Also, the baggage of an army. Now, in Great Britain, the ordinary word for: The baggage belonging to a traveller or passenger, esp. by a public conveyance.  [1903]

I'd say that the original senses feel "right" for me as an AmE speaker—that luggage is big/heavy enough to be "lugged", but baggage can be more varied. But I am even more likely to use luggage for empty suitcases. I buy new luggage for a trip. A 1997 draft addition to the OED luggage entry says this 'suitcases' meaning dates to the early 20th century.

It only becomes baggage when I fill it up with stuff and give it to someone else to put onto a train or plane. If I handle it myself, I wouldn't call it baggage. I'd call it 'my bags' or 'my suitcases' or 'my stuff'.

I've just asked my English spouse how he'd differentiate the two words:

Him: Baggage sounds old-fashioned, I probably wouldn't use it.
Me:  But there's [BrE] baggage reclaim [=AmE baggage claim] at the airport.
Him: That's true...A backpack or a box can be baggage, but it can't be luggage. Luggage has to be cases. 

Other than his claim about old-fashionedness, we're pretty much on the same page. And when I look for these things in the GloWbE corpus, they don't show a clear British-versus-American profile: There is more British usage of both terms in that corpus. Maybe this can be attributed to the fact that British people get a lot more (BrE) holiday / (AmE) vacation time than Americans get, so their websites have more discussion of buying/packing/losing luggage or baggage?

In books, it looks like AmE & BrE are getting to be more similar in how they use luggage:

So, it doesn't look like the words themselves are good markers of Americanness/Britishness these days. But expressions containing these words can be. We've already seen baggage car/luggage van and baggage (re)claimThere are others.

In BrE, hand luggage is essentially the same as AmE carry-on (bag).  Or at least it was. I think the import of carry-on might be influencing its meaning. Spouse says he makes a distinction: you put hand luggage under the seat in front of you, carry-ons in the overhead bin. But, his intuition notwithstanding, shop for hand luggage and you'll be shown carry-ons. 

Baggage carousel is marked by the OED (2003) as 'originally and chiefly North American', but it's well used in BrE, as is luggage carousel. 

Luggage locker is BrE for the kinds of lockers that one might find in a train station (or also BrE rail[way] station) or (AmE) bus/(BrE) coach station. I think in AmE, we'd just call them lockers.

Left luggage is BrE for the kind of place where you pay someone to keep your bags for you for a while. AmE would call that luggage storage, and you find that expression in BrE too. 

Hold luggage (or hold baggage) is BrE for AmE checked bags on a plane. (But checked baggage is found in both.)

Plenty of other luggage/baggage collocations are the same. We all use luggage racks and baggage handlers, and baggage allowance, among other things.

As for metaphorical baggage—emotional baggage and the like, this usage is common to both countries. The OED added a draft definition for it in 2007:  

figurative. Beliefs, knowledge, experiences, or habits conceived of as something one carries around; (in later use) esp. characteristics of this type which are considered undesirable or inappropriate in a new situation. Frequently with modifying word, as cultural baggageemotional baggageintellectual baggage, etc. 

Their first citation for it comes from 1886 in the (London) Times in the phrase intellectual baggage (followed by a US citation in 1922). Cultural baggage shows up in 1967 in Canada, and emotional baggage in 1997 from a UK author. Their first citation for just plain (metaphorical) baggage is from an American author in 1986 (though the OED notes their source as the UK edition of the book). 

P.S. If this post interested you, you might also like the post on purses and bags

P.P.S. [22 Sept 2023]  Greg [no relation] Murphy sent me this photo, showing Amtrak [AmE] covering all the bases.


  1. Why did the UK retain the use of baggage as a disapproving and sexist term for a woman- one of so many? I grew up in Canada and Scotland. My Scottish grandmother would occasionally refer to someone she didn't like as a "baggage". Luckily she was a pretty nice person so I didn't hear it a lot. And in Canada in my unenlightened youth we regularly referred to unpleasant women as "bags" although adult men would refer to "old bags."

  2. [Southern English, b.mid-1960s]
    My feeling is that (except when used disparagingly of a woman, as the previous commenter says), "baggage" is an American word. When I'm travelling, all the stuff I take along with me - suitcases, trunks, rucksacks, laptop cases or whatever else - are all items of luggage. Even if the sign says "baggage reclaim" I think I would refer to it as "luggage reclaim". I really don't think I would ever use the word "baggage" in any sense but the metaphorical - and that feels American, too.

  3. American rail travel does indeed still have "baggage cars", although checking baggage on a train journey is not so frequent these days (there is enough space in a passenger car to hold most people's normal baggage, so it tends to be used only for bulky items like bicycles or sporting equipment). Some Amtrak trains are operated in "push-pull" mode where there is a locomotive at one end and a control cab at the other end; and rather than ordering custom passenger cars with driver's controls, Amtrak recycled obsolete locomotives by removing the engine and using the empty space as a baggage compartment -- these are known by railfans (=BrE trainspotters) as "cabbages".

  4. I remember as a child when I was reading the Paddington books, and learning that Paddington got his name because he was found in the Paddington Station Left Luggage Office, if that meant that Paddington Station had two luggage offices, and the other one was the Right Luggage Office.

  5. I guess it's 20 years ago now, but I travelled quite a bit by train in New Zealand when I was there. They had a luggage van. You said where you were getting off, handed your luggage up to the person in charge of the van, they stowed it. When you got off, it varied. Sometimes I got off in a big station with a lot of other people, and they'd be unloading it onto trestle tables or similar. Sometimes I got off in middle of nowhere - literally, one place there wasn't a platform and you clambered down from the carriage onto the grass. That's a LONG way down - and you pointed to whatever your luggage was (in my case a rucksack) and they'd hand it out.

  6. Re: luggage as a word for the suitcase itself. My wife gets annoyed watching Richard Osman's House of Games when winners select as a prize "the luggage" referring to an empty suitcase. She shouts, "It's a suitcase!" She argues that luggage is what you put into it.

  7. Up until the mid 1980s most British trains (commuter and Inter-City) had a Guard's Van that was often referred to as the Luggage Van. Luggage was placed here, along with parcels and other items they were carrying. You could put bicycles and large suitcases there as the Guard supervised the storage area. As well as conventional doors, it had large sliding doors on both sides and the capacity was about that of a modern 10ft container. They were not not separate coaches as used on a freight train (i.e. a Caboose) as the guard could easily walk through into the passngers cars. If you had a large item and knew the next stop was brief, you could walk down the corridor to get your luggage/bicycle and be ready to jump off. As passenger numbers increased, it was not unusual for the guard to open the van and a couple of dozen commuters would be standing in there. A few stops along and people filtered out in the passenger cars.

  8. It had somehow never occurred to me that the word "luggage" is for stuff you lug along..... oh well! I remember once travelling in the luggage van, but I can't now remember why. And have we forgotten that very useful feature of trains, the luggage rack? These days, overhead luggage racks are much smaller than they used to be, and larger items have to go in "luggage stacks" at either end of the carriage.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Since I retired, I've been doing a lot of train travelling around Europe. It always amuses (and annoys) me that I can travel through Germany with my case on the overhead rack, then I get back to the UK and there's no place to put it.

  9. Interesting that you say the BrE equivalent of 'train station' is 'rail station'. I would say that 'railway station' is much more common, although the US 'train station' is catching on. But simply 'station' would be used and understood by most British people to mean a train/rail/railway station. I've seen it argued that 'train station' parallels 'bus station', and also that it's the train that becomes stationary, not the rails, so there is some logic to 'train station'.

    1. Which reminds me of the time that I was going to catch a train which started from the station I was at, and the ticket inspector (are they still called that? He had to let me through the gates manually as I didn't have a machine-readable ticket) said "Your train is sitting on platform 1", which I thought was very clever of it. Of course, when I got there, it was alongside the platform as usual.....

    2. The train staff use "Station stop" which many people find irritating, but they basically mean stopping at the station, rather than at a red signal in the middle of nowhere!

  10. [BrE, 60's (age, DoB, both)] "Left luggage" has always been slightly confusing to me as it means two different services: (i) storing bags to avoid carrying them around, and (ii) retrieving lost items left on the train. I always assumed the same term is used because, in the old days, both functions were performed by the same staff, in the same place. But they have always seemed to me to be different services.

    1. Didn't they call the latter "Lost Property"?

      Incidentally, I've always been intrigued by the left luggage facility at Cologne main station. There are what looks like a number of lockers outside the ticket office. You put your case in one and the locker issues a reclaim token - I can't remember how. When you want to get your case back, you can go to any of the lockers and your case is automatically delivered to it. No personnel involved.

  11. Though I am familiar with the two words, I didn't know their etymology. Quite fascinating.

  12. When you wrote "I can't remember the last time I checked my bags on a train journey" I thought you meant "checked to see that I know where they are and no-one has stolen them". But maybe you meant what British people would say "I can't remember the last time I checked my bags in on a train journey". "Checked in" being our term for "Handing them over to an official for safe stowage". "Checked" on its own just means "verified status is satisfactory".

  13. Of course there's the old-fashioned military term 'baggage train'. In 'Henry V' Shakespeare has the Welsh Captain Fluellen, for whom English is very much a second language, exclaim indignantly "Kill the poys (boys) and the luggage!" after an attack on the English baggage train.

  14. 40yo Midwestern American here. I really only use baggage in the term baggage claim, otherwise I use luggage for suitcases or bags for more generic "all my stuff I'm bringing on this trip, including purse or backpack."

  15. i live in america and i say luggage.... i hear people say luggage in america more then baggage...

  16. b. London, 1970s. I recently read a non-fiction essay in an American local paper called 'Our luggage takes a vacation'. At first glance, a suitable British English translation would seem to be 'Our luggage goes on holiday'.

    But the wit of the title comes from the dual meaning of 'luggage' in American English, usable both for heavily stuffed bags and for empty suitcases. The article describes the author's father's holiday habit of giving away not only the contents of his over-full cases, but also the cases themselves.

    As the Richard Osman story above illustrates, 'luggage' in the meaning of empty suitcases sounds like sales language to me and not something I would ever say - though my American wife uses it that way. So a better British translation of the article title might be 'Our suitcases go on holiday', but (at least to my ear) that doesn't quite capture the ambiguity of the American original.

    Second quick thought: 'to check a bag' as the verb for handing over your bags still sounds American to me. I'd always use 'to check in a bag' and 'checked-in bags' (never 'checked bags'), at least when speaking to older Brits.


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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)